Living in New York City, I often have the opportunity to see stars. They’re everywhere: at cafés, boutiques, movie premieres, health clubs, & other such earthbound venues. Check the gossip columns if you don’t believe me.
When the blackout of ’03 dimmed the mighty skyline, however, I could suddenly see stars simply by looking up…zillions of them blinking at me from beyond the unlit skyscrapers.
Traffic lights were out of commission, but to the southeast, Mars provided the only red light we really needed.
By odd coincidence, our crimson neighbor was closer to Earth than ever before and the power outage gave us Easterners an excellent view of Mars’s southern hemisphere from a mere 34.6 million miles away—34,646,418.5 miles to be exact, but who measures in the middle of a blackout?
Still, even with the stars twinkling above and little green Martians close enough to reach out and shake my hand, it was when I returned my gaze back down to the streets that I truly couldn’t believe my eyes. Strolling through Astoria as the sun set that clammy evening, one could witness a sight even more uncommon than any celestial spectacle.
My neighbors had abandoned their post-modern pace and begun listening to their primitive instincts. All across the darkened city, Big Apple inhabitants stopped hustling. They sat still and talked to each other.
No computers, no televisions, no telephones…just face-to-face communication (even if it was too dark at times to actually see faces).
This unforeseen solidarity was somehow accomplished without the assistance of Twitter or Facebook. Money didn’t change hands, no cell phone radiation was emitted, no air was conditioned.
Under a sky full of stars and a visiting red space-mate, it was miraculously possible to re-connect to our more prehistoric roots and encounter the sort of life we may have evolved to live back in the “caveman” days.
Our modern caves, the subterranean tunnels of transportation known as “the subway,” were virtually empty that night but the concrete jungle above them might as well have been the Savannah of ancient Africa. The tribes of Astoria sat around fires, sharing food and communal stories. Some even beat on drums.
In times like this, it’s easier to appreciate that we each possess a physiology that evolved to negotiate the Stone Age. Inconveniently, we live in the Space Age. Therein lies the rub. We are urban cavemen (and cavewomen, of course)—overmatched in our daily crusade to navigate an artificial reality because we have lost contact with our nature.
For one thing, we likely didn’t evolve to be surrounded by this many people. Thus, in our futile search for a manageable tribe, we preserve our attention for a handful of fellow humans. What’s vexing is how to deal with the other few million humans who are not in our tribe…but still in our face.
Subsequently, we inventive mortals have cultivated the astounding ability to simply pretend that other people aren’t there. Our non-tribe members are henceforth bequeathed sub-human status and are hastily disregarded.
Here’s what the noted zoologist Desmond Morris said about this form of universal denial:
“In the busy streets, you develop human traffic skills of amazing dexterity. In crowded buses, trains, and elevators, you acquire a blank stare. You have eyes only for those you know. This enables you to enjoy the varied delights of the big city while mentally re-creating a personal tribe existence.”
But, dear Desmond, what happens when those streets aren’t busy…like, say, during the worst blackout in U.S. history?
We may have eyes only for those we know, but what about when it’s too shadowy to tell the difference?
With our vision impaired enough to create the illusion of intimacy and our vaunted technology no longer at our overworked fingertips, this urban caveman got a taste of a different life and a potentially different culture.
Sure, things returned to “normal” by the next day, but the experience left some of us wondering just what “normal” means.
The last time Mars got this close to Earth was 60,000 years ago…an age when stars were easy to find and one could cause a blackout by simply dousing the fire.
Mickey Z. is probably the only person on the planet to have appeared in both a karate flick with Billy “Tae Bo” Blanks and a political book with Howard Zinn. He is the author of 9 books—most recently Self Defense for Radicals and his second novel, Dear Vito—and can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.
Mickey Z is a regular columnist for Novakeo.com